The NFL Dead Zone: Dead Money & Team Salary Caps in the 2014 Season

The 2014 NFL Draft is 78 days away, and the NFL “New Year” begins March 11th, at which point salary cap implications for teams’ current players will kick in for the coming season.

Last season, the Oakland Raiders had $56-plus million dollars worth of dead money. That is, more than $56,000,000 of their funds last season were tied up in players who were not even members of the Raiders. It was an impressive figure, more than one-third of their $123 million salary cap. Their incoming general manager, Reggie McKenzie, made a courageous decision to dump at once all of the terrible contracts he inherited, guaranteeing a tough season for Raiders fans. (In fact, going 4-12 was something of a pleasant surprise.)

But now McKenzie can reap the rewards, earn the salt, bring home the bacon, have his cake and eat it too1, all those good things. The Raiders have over $60 million in cap space heading into next season. With 2013 behind them, McKenzie and the Raiders can spend nearly half of the yet-to-be-finalized 2014 NFL salary cap (likely $123-126 million or so) however they like. And their terrible season last year has armed them with the fifth, fourth, and third picks of the first three rounds of the draft, respectively. Shake it out, Raiders fans! Remember, it’s always darkest before the dawn.

McKenzie’s management has moved the Raiders to the tenth-best standing in the NFL Dead Zone, brought to you by Richard Seymour. What is the NFL Dead Zone? The NFL Dead Zone is a psychic realm of Roger Goodell’s mind where upon shaking players’ hands he sees visions of their future on-field concussions and disillusioned, depressed lives after retirement, and through the Dead Zone’s apparitions Goodell can actually change the future!

Wait, that isn’t it. The NFL Dead Zone is the long-awaited series finale/made-for-TV movie, ditched by UPN, then USA, and coming to NFL Network this fall as part of the new NFL-CBS deal for Thursday Night Football!

Wait, that isn’t it either.

The NFL Dead Zone is a statistic relating a team’s dead money and salary cap space. Definitively, it is a team’s dead money divided by the sum of their dead money and their salary cap space. That is:

(Dead $$$) / (Dead $$$ + Salary Cap Space) = Dead Zone Rating

The NFL Dead Zone is a hybrid of those two related, interesting-but-not-absolute team management metrics. Neither having some dead money nor having little cap space is insurmountable. But when dead money–accounted to players no longer on a team’s roster–is the primary cause of a team’s tight cap situation (as opposed to, say, signing Peyton Manning), then…

Christopher Walken, is it really you? ARE YOU IN THERE SOMEWHERE?
Christopher Walken, is it really you? ARE YOU IN THERE SOMEWHERE?

…well, it gets ugly.

The NFL Dead Zone is a percentage, and ideally you want as little to do with the Dead Zone as possible, for it is a most terrifying place indeed. It is a place where Christopher Walken looks like that. It is a place where your daughter is screaming and the world is burning. It is a place brought to you by defensive tackle Richard Seymour, whose contract cost the Raiders $13.714 million last season, despite being voided seven months before the season even began. The Dead Zone, both in Stephen King’s writing and in the NFL, is a place ripe with fear and apprehension about the future.

Blessed with McKenzie’s bravery, the Oakland Raiders have mostly emerged from the dark of the Dead Zone, sitting pretty with the 10th-lowest Dead Zone Rating as the dawn of the 2014 season approaches. The Raiders still have $9 million in dead money this coming year, fifth-most in the league; but with nearly $61 million in unallocated salary cap money, that amounts to an NFL Dead Zone rating of 13.25 percent, tenth-lowest in the league. Well done, Mr. McKenzie, well done.

Pictured: Reggie McKenzie, General Manager, Oakland Raiders
Pictured: Reggie McKenzie, General Manager, Oakland Raiders

The team least troubled by the Dead Zone? The New York Jets. This is NOT to say that the Jets are the best team, or will be the best team next season, or that they have objectively gotten the most out of their salary cap (or that they are the team most capable of changing the future). But it does mean that at the moment, the share of the Jets’ potential cap space lost to players not even on their team anymore is the smallest in the league at 0.24 percent. Their mere $0.049 million in dead money is the lowest in the league, while their $20-plus million in cap space ranks eleventh.

At the other end of the spectrum are the New Orleans Saints. The third-most dead money–over $10 million–and the fourth-least cap space–less than $2 million–make for an 87.57 percent dead zone rating. By awarding millions in signing bonuses and guaranteed money to players they would later cut or trade away (Roman Harper, Jabari Greer, Will Smith), the Saints road through the dead zone will be formidable. If I were Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, I would call up Christopher Walken right now for advice. Or at least Stephen King.

Now, here at last is the complete enumeration of where every team2 stands in the NFL Dead Zone.3 It’s over. You’re finished.

Team Rank Dead Zone Rank Dead Money Rank Cap Space
NYJ 1 0.24% 28 48,958 11 20,044,583
TB 2 1.10% 26 139,119 15 12,541,710
IND 3 2.30% 25 800,733 4 33,972,029
CIN 4 3.99% 24 984,281 9 23,662,960
MIN 5 5.92% 21 1,783,163 7 28,331,238
PHI 6 6.30% 23 1,348,343 10 20,059,815
GB 7 8.59% 18 2,677,484 6 28,498,261
JAC 8 10.18% 10 5,600,511 2 49,428,124
MIA 9 13.21% 11 4,942,895 5 32,481,214
OAK 10 13.25% 5 9,286,520 1 60,817,593
CLE 11 13.67% 8 7,194,153 3 45,452,022
STL 12 17.82% 27 133,805 28 617,229
NYG 13 18.08% 17 2,778,141 14 12,588,186
BAL 14 21.16% 12 4,422,216 13 16,479,137
CHI 15 22.61% 22 1,476,669 22 5,054,728
WAS 16 24.89% 7 7,941,733 8 23,969,653
SF 17 26.00% 20 1,934,691 21 5,506,346
DEN 18 26.26% 14 3,992,329 17 11,212,168
TEN 19 27.98% 19 2,449,725 20 6,306,953
ATL 20 32.25% 9 5,922,507 16 12,442,188
BUF 21 38.89% 2 12,070,113 12 18,967,410
DET 22 50.40% 13 4,069,438 23 4,005,130
ARI 23 51.25% 4 10,087,467 18 9,595,088
KC 24 53.13% 15 3,505,823 25 3,092,443
HOU 25 56.29% 16 3,247,174 26 2,521,766
CAR 26 68.35% 1 17,840,240 19 8,260,965
NE 27 70.08% 6 8,533,721 24 3,644,255
NO 28 87.57% 3 10,450,051 27 1,482,990

  1. Because what good is having cake if you can’t eat it? Seriously… 
  2. Okay, almost; four teams–Dallas, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Seattle–actually have negative projected 2014 salary cap space at the moment, a situation so bad it goes beyond the parameters of the Dead Zone and into something more of an “After-Death Zone”. Perhaps more on this later. 
  3.  Team dead money and salary cap figures determined by